III. Readerly versus Writerly: Roland Barthes and the Hard-Boiled Genre
So to what extent does the hard-boiled genre lend itself to cultural and political appropriation? This question has continued to be posed since 1988 and contending responses have been suggested. On the one hand, it has been argued that crime fiction in general suffers from two features which render it inflexible and unsuitable in advancing political causes: conservatism, since the story needs a resolution whereby the status quo is restored, and masculinism, because the classic PIs are not only almost exclusively male but also misogynistic. On the other hand, given the success of authors such as Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, an equally strong case has been made in favor of the adaptability of this genre. I would like to assert (in agreement with Scaggs, Willett and Christianson) that new insight might be gained into this debate by drawing on the Barthesian contrast between the readerly and the writerly texts.
According to Barthes, there are two types of texts: the readerly (lisible) and the writerly (scriptible), each of which encourages a different kind of reading. The readerly text invites a passive reader who is inclined to accept the text’s meanings as already determined, “[p]lung[ing] him into a kind of idleness” and leaving him “with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text” (qtd. in Scaggs 74). This type of text typically reaffirms the ideology entrenched in it; further, it attempts to naturalize that ideology and make it seem commonsensical. Contrary to the readerly text, the writerly text aims “to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text”. This kind of text encourages the reader to assume an active role in rewriting and revising the text in order to make sense of it. In other words, it invites the reader to participate in the construction of meaning.
Along this line of argument, the mystery novel, since its ultimate goal is narrative closure in solving the crime, falls into the category of the readerly text; however, it is less easy to give the hard-boiled novel the same label. Scaggs enumerates several reasons in favor of viewing the hard-boiled novel as a writerly text:
In the hard-boiled novel the private eye achieves only partial understanding or limited and temporary success. Furthermore, the characteristic first-person narrative of the hard-boiled novel is constructed around the divided, fragmented figure of the private eye, resulting in a multivalent text… (75)
The hard-boiled novel, therefore, can be considered writerly, “whose gaps and fissures encourage the reader to enter into the production of meaning.”
In a similar vein, Scott R. Christianson in his article, “A Heap of Broken Images: Hardboiled Detective Fiction and the Discourse(s) of Modernity”, likens the hard-boiled to the fragments of The Wasteland. He finds the “isolated modern hero sitting before a spectacle of modern chaos and trying to make sense...